By Bryan Burwell
Of the Post-Dispatch
Sunday, Jan. 16 2005

ATLANTA - At the end of this draining night in Georgia, inside the visitor's
locker room in the lower reaches of the Georgia Dome, the Rams' traveling
football show was ready to close down. Down the hall in the upbeat Atlanta
Falcons locker room, little kids with footballs and Michael Vick jerseys darted
back and forth getting autographs from their hometown heroes. Players checked
their cell phone voice mails, and perused the gaudy stat sheet that gave all
the gory details of their 47-17 rout of the Rams in Saturday night's NFC
conference semifinal playoff.

The Falcons' dazzling show is still playing to rave reviews this morning. The
NFC South champs are on their way to the NFC Championship Game, and they are
brimming with a verve and confidence that only dominant victories like this can
bring. Yet here inside the Rams' subdued visiting quarters, the show was
closing down for the season. Equipment men packed all the pads and helmets,
jerseys, tape and footballs into large trunks and shoved them onto waiting
moving vans. The glum-faced front-office brass milled quietly around the room,
shaking hands with players and offering soothing words of comfort. The players
quietly stuffed their belongings into expensive leather carry-alls, then tried
to make sense of this abrupt and decisive destruction at the hands of the
Falcons.

"I just knew we were going to do better than that," Leonard Little said as he
leaned against his locker stall. "I swear, we practiced against every single
play they ran. We knew every scheme they threw at us. I just don't get how it
turned out so bad."

From start to finish, there was scant evidence that the Rams had a clue that
they knew what they were doing against the Falcons. If you believe in
premonitions, maybe the Rams should have known what was in store for them from
the beginning of the stunning pre-game pyrotechnics that were so hot they could
singe eyebrows from 50 yards away.

The Falcons came jogging out of the Dome end zone tunnel for pre-game
introductions to the dazzling fanfare of exploding fireworks, giant
flame-throwing torches and throbbing hip-hop music that was so loud and so cool
that it turned this rowdy place into a giant domed dance club.

Oh, if only that was the extent of the explosions. But unfortunately for the
Rams, the biggest bangs and most devastating detonations on this night were not
reserved solely for the pre-game festivities. From start to finish, the Falcons
detonated creative pyrotechnics in all of the very familiar weak spots of the
Rams.

We all knew this improbable late-season renaissance had to end sooner or later.
But did it have to end like this, so abruptly, so emphatically? The Falcons
gashed the Rams' run defense at an eye-popping pace. Quarterback Michael Vick
(119 yards), tailback Warrick Dunn (142 yards) and fullback T.J. Duckett (66
yards) gouged the so-called new and improved St. Louis defense for a
jaw-dropping 327 yards on the ground.

Atlanta return man Allen Rossum blew through the Rams special teams with such
stunning regularity it was hard to figure why he only had one touchdown. This
was a horrid rerun of some of the worst displays of the Rams' up-and-down
season. "I just didn't expect that," said Mike Martz, who still looked stunned
a half-hour after the game. "I don't know why they played like that. . . . We
just gotta fix what's wrong."

After three weeks of dramatic improvement on all fronts, the Rams had a relapse
so dramatic Saturday night against the Falcons that this franchise will surely
go into the offseason stung by the humiliation of such a complete loss. Yet the
farther we move away from the agony of defeat, this butt-whipping by the
Falcons might just serve the Rams rather well. While what we saw over the past
few weeks was quite useful for the future of this franchise, the defeat - so
sound, so complete, so staggering - showed just how far the team still has to
go before it can once again be a legitimate championship contender.

"As a team, we have come a long ways," said Martz, a faint smile creasing his
lips. "(But) we have a long way to go."

They discovered several new and exciting offensive weapons for the future in
wide receiver Kevin Curtis (his second consecutive 100-yard receiving game)
speeding through the secondary, and No. 1 draft pick Steven Jackson pounding
through the line of scrimmage with his thunderous power.

They discovered that some of those young defensive linemen, like Anthony
Hargrove and Jimmy Kennedy, are on the verge of becoming impressive and useful
members of that sagging defensive front. We learned that quarterback Marc
Bulger has the grit and arm strength to lead this team for a long time. We even
learned that Marshall Faulk still has some juice left in his 31-year-old legs.
We learned there is something to build on with this team that struggled through
the regular season with an 8-8 record. And we know that any time you can give a
young team the invaluable exposure of the high drama of the NFL playoffs, it
will serve the team well down the line.

But the trouble with putting a team like the young Rams on such a large and
intense national stage like the conference semifinals is that ultimately they
have to run into a legitimate championship contender like these very impressive
Falcons, who have few weaknesses and expose all of their opponents'. The
Falcons definitively showed that this team needs run-stuffing linebackers to
help out Pisa Tinoisamoa, and play-making safeties in the worst way. They need
to concentrate in the draft on finding big, nasty offensive linemen to keep
their MVP quarterback protected.

The simple truth is, a loss like this can serve this franchise very well. It's
now in the hands of the Rams scouts and personnel evaluators. Their season has
just begun and what they do over the next few months will be even more
important than their giddy three-game January resurgence.